Three years from its Clemson loss, Ohio State now has vertical passing game

Joey Kaufman
Getting behind Michigan defensive back Josh Metellus, Ohio State wide receiver Chris Olave catches a 57-yard touchdown pass from Justin Fields during the first quarter in Ann Arbor on Nov. 30. [Adam Cairns/Dispatch]

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -– In the aftermath of a humbling loss to Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl three years ago, Urban Meyer vowed to make a change.

“We will become a good passing team,” he said. “Next year.”

As Ohio State was shut out, quarterback J.T. Barrett completed little more than half his passes for a paltry 127 yards. Two throws were intercepted.

On the big stage, the semifinals of the College Football Playoff, it showed an offense’s limitations when it’s devoid of the aerial attack needed to return to the pinnacle of the sport.

But Meyer’s promise was fulfilled.

For the following season, he reworked his coaching staff. He hired Kevin Wilson as offensive coordinator and Ryan Day as quarterbacks coach and offensive co-coordinator with Wilson.

Upon their arrivals, and including Day succeeding Meyer as head coach, the Buckeyes’ passing game has undergone a dramatic makeover ahead of a rematch with Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday, an event that again serves as one of the semifinal games in the national championship playoffs.

Last season marked a significant moment in the evolution when quarterback Dwayne Haskins Jr. threw 533 times, a school record.

The volume for Justin Fields is less than for his predecessor. He has attempted 308 passes in 2019.

But even more than in previous seasons, the Buckeyes have relied on a downfield passing game in their air attack.

According to data from Pro Football Focus, the analytics website, Fields has thrown 20 or more yards downfield on 21.9 percent of his total pass attempts, resulting in 19 touchdowns -- tied with Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow of LSU for the most in the Football Bowl Subdivision -- without being intercepted.

It’s a heavier dependence than for Haskins, who saw 13.5 percent of his total pass attempts travel 20 or more yards, or Barrett, who threw the deep passes 15.5 percent of the time in his final season in 2017, one under the direction of Day and Wilson.

“I wouldn’t say we’re like the old Oakland Raiders, where it’s drop back and throw it as far as you can,” Wilson said. “And we do have a fair amount of short, dink-and-dunk passes. But because we run the ball well and the way we get defended, it’s kind of opened up those deeper shots.”

Wilson remarked that part of the movement toward deep passing is owed to Day, who spent two seasons as an assistant in the NFL and borrowed ideas about how to attack coverages deep downfield.

But other factors also sparked an uptick in the vertical elements seen throughout the fall.

Defenses positioned themselves closer to the line of scrimmage to account for running back J.K. Dobbins and Fields, who is also a speedy runner, an ability Haskins lacked.

“If you got to bring people up to stop that,” Wilson said, “well, then, where are the zones to throw the ball?”

Fields’ legs also provide a challenge for secondaries.

He can roll outside the pocket, giving receivers more time to run further downfield, something Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables has noticed.

“Any time you're dealing with a dual-threat guy who can extend plays, what happens is DBs get bored back there,” Venables said. “They start peeking because the play takes so long and they're not used to that.”

It was seen on Fields’ signature throw this season.

Late in the third quarter in a win at archrival Michigan last month, Fields, who had just returned to the field after aggravating his sprained left knee, slid toward to the sideline, moving beyond the left hashmark.

Six seconds had ticked off the clock before Fields lofted a pass, a long-enough time span that receiver Garrett Wilson kept running down the sideline and toward the back of the end zone, where he caught a 30-yard touchdown.

With Day at the helm of the program and running the offense, some element of deep passing is likely to stay.

“I just think that's Coach Day's offense,” Fields said. “He always says there are going to be shots in the game."

For the first time since their previous meeting, Clemson will be forced to handle them.